Technology delivers brain controlled flying robots

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Thanks to this team of University of Minnesota researchers, this flying robot takes its orders from a person's thoughts. (Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota)

Mind control is a common presence in the various visions of the future created by science fiction writers and filmmakers.

Though humans have already harnessed previous "powers of the future" like space travel, touch screens and automatic doors, mind control has remained a far off fantasy — until now, perhaps.

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota recently demonstrated a new flying robot controlled by human thoughts. It is the first robot of its kind. 

Controlling the robot requires no movement of the body. Instead, it reads brain activity through a "thinking cap," or EEG cap, consisting of 64 sensors that pick up electric potential. To move left or right, subjects simply think about clenching their corresponding hand. 

"We are able to pick up such kind of signal when the subjects are thinking with certain intention, say wanting to fly the robot to the left or to the right," said Bin He, professor of biomedical engineering and team lead. "We were able to reliably detect that signal and send through a wi-fi network to control that robot."


Before subjects could begin the experiment, He and his team gave them, on average, 10 to 12 hours of training. 

During the experiment, subjects sat in a room away from the robot, and watched a monitor showing the robots point-of-view. The robot was placed in a large gymnasium. Users had to locate a ring of balloons in the gym and fly the robot through without bumping into the sides.

"This was like a real-life scenario," He said. 

He and his team hope their new technology can be applied to help disabled and paralyzed people regain some of their movement capabilities, even when they can't move themselves.

"If their brain is clear, we can turn their thought into action," He said.

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